Big Oil Fights Big Ag

Big Oil Fights Big Ag

Corn FuelBy John Addison (2/8/10)
Americans are spending 20 percent of their income on transportation. In the average two-car household the percentage is often higher. Big Oil and Big Ag are fighting for their share of that money.

Petroleum use has started to drop in the United States as we have fewer cars  and more fuel efficient cars.  The U.S. Department of Energy reports drops in refinery utilization due to weak demand for gasoline and diesel.

Ethanol and biodiesel further cut into oil profits. Big Oil is maneuvering to slow Big Ag from selling more biofuels. Big Oil giants include Exxon (XOM), Chevron (CVX), and Shell (RDS.A). Big Ag giants include ADM, Bunge (BG), and Cargill.

Industry leaders are trying to sound high-minded, not crude. No food fights. No fighting in the war room.

The latest EPA Renewable Fuels Standard will cause over 8 percent of our car and truck fuel to come from food crops in 2010. That lowers Big Oil’s sale of gasoline and diesel by 8 percent. That’s real money. Billions. The EPA does not require that the biofuel come from food, that’s just our only volume choice in 2010. Cellulosic and waste production is still at the expensive pilot stage. EPA talked tough in developing the new RFS, but in the end, gave the industry ways to qualify by making corn ethanol.

We need fuel from wood and waste, not food and haste. Big Oil may actually win the fight to stop using food crops with low-yields per acre, and help the transition to high-yield low carbon emission sources. The industry has invested over a billion dollars in advanced biofuels, algal fuel, and biotech ventures.

Exxon Mobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson famously referred to ethanol as “moonshine.” Now Exxon is investing $300 million in Craig Ventor’s Synthetic Genomics with plans to produce fuel from algae. BP Biofuels was voted 2009 Biofuels Corporation of the Year by the World Refining Association at its 4th annual Biofuels Conference. BP has poured hundreds of millions into basic biofuel research and into a variety of partnerships including biobutanol with DuPont and Virgin Fuels, and energy cane in the U.S. with Verenium. Shell has established a $12 billion sugarcane ethanol joint venture with Brazil’s Cosan (CZZ).

In the future, if biotech can deliver low-cost liquid hydrocarbons from biomass that can be profitably blended at the refinery, then Big Oil may partner with industrial agriculture. Valero (VLO), the largest refiner in the U.S. bought a number of ethanol plants at deep discounts from bankrupt VeraSun.

For now, both the petroleum producers and industrial agriculture want to control EPA regulation, federal tax breaks, and billions of federal funds. They also want greenhouse gas emissions measured their way. If growing more corn for ethanol and soy for biodiesel leads to rainforests being destroyed, then Big Oil favors that being included in biofuel emission lifecycle analysis. Big Ag is against such land-use analysis
Argonne Lifecycle Presentation
California Lifecycle with Land-use Studies

Renewable Fuels Standard.  EPA has finalized a rule implementing the long-term renewable fuels mandate of 36 billion gallons by 2022 established by Congress. The Renewable Fuels Standard requires biofuels production to grow from last year’s 11.1 billion gallons to 36 billion gallons in 2022, with 21 billion gallons to come from advanced biofuels. Increasing renewable fuels will reduce dependence on oil by more than 328 million barrels a year and reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than 138 million metric tons a year when fully phased in by 2022. For the first time, some renewable fuels must achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions – compared to the gasoline and diesel fuels they displace – in order to be counted towards compliance with volume standards.

Biomass Crop Assistance Program. USDA has proposed a rule for Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) to convert biomass to bioenergy and bio-based products. USDA provides grants and loans and other financial support to help biofuels and renewable energy commercialization. BCAP has already begun to provide matching payments to folks delivering biomass for the collection, harvest, storage, and transportation of biomass to eligible biomass conversion facilities.

Biofuels Working Group. In May, President Obama established the Biofuels Interagency Working Group – co-chaired by USDA, DOE, and EPA, and with input from many others – to develop a comprehensive approach to accelerating the investment in and production of American biofuels and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. Today the Working Group released its first report: Growing America’s Fuel – a new U.S. Government strategy for meeting or beating the country’s biofuel targets. The report is focused on short term support for the existing biofuels industry, as well as accelerating the commercial establishment of advanced biofuels and a viable long-term market by transforming how the U.S. Government does business across Departments and using strategic public-private partnerships.

Frank Maisano, an energy specialist based in Washington D.C. at Bracewell & Giuliani, a law firm that represents refiners and cellulosic ethanol makers, gives this perspective: “The long-suffering lifecycle Greenhouse gas rule was released last week with great fanfare, including a call with Energy Secretary Chu, EPA Administrator Jackson, Interior Secretary Salazar and USDA Secretary Vilsack. It followed a meeting with the White House and highlighted several biofuels task force recommendations. Beyond confusing most reporters about EPA’s authority to go beyond the 2007 Energy law requirements for ethanol, the two takeaways seem to be EPA was giving in some (at least enough to placate Vilsack) on indirect land-use regulation of biofuels, and that the US is WAY behind its biofuels requirements in the same 2007 Energy law. Certainly, the coalition of enviro advocates, food groups, small engine groups and refiners were annoyed with the first point while ethanol supporters reluctantly said they could live with the EPA position. Ethanol emissions expert Tim Searchinger of Princeton may have said it best: “the numbers are inconsistent with the great bulk of analyses by others, which consistently find that emissions from indirect land use change for crops grown on productive land cancel out the bulk or all of the greenhouse gas reductions.” EPA’s Jackson said they weren’t messing with the equation to get to a specific result.”

Frank Maisano also summarized the following: “House Legislation to Limit EPA Authority, GHG Lifecycle Analysis –Last week, House Ag Chair Colin Peterson introduced legislation to prevent EPA from regulating GHGs, but added a twist: a provision blocking its land-use biofuels rule as well. This makes for an interesting dilemma should the two remain together, especially for members such as oil-patch Democrats that may want to block EPA authority on GHG regulation, but toughen land-use provisions to ethanol’s measuring stick. We shall see how this plays out. On the Senate side, Sen. Murkowski said she is likely to petition the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee by the end of February to force the release of her proposal to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Murkowski now has 41 votes, including her own, supporting the resolution (S.J. Res. 26).”

Regulation that helps Big Oil and Big Ag are billions in tax breaks for exploration and for not growing crops. EPActs encourage government buying of flex fuel vehicles. No automaker, including the primary beneficiaries of the regulation GM and Ford, offer a flex fuel vehicle in the U.S. that can deliver 20 mpg (EPA combined) running on E85. No U.S. offered flex fuel vehicle does much better on gasoline. As the 4 million vehicles in federal, state, and local government fleets continue to add flex fuel vehicles, more gasoline and more ethanol must be purchased to deal with the poor mileage. In the end, it’s more taxpayer dollars going to Big Oil and Big Ag.

Gas Misers or Corn Guzzlers

Gas Misers or Corn Guzzlers

Biofuels pumpPeople buying new cars are asking if they should get a high mileage hybrid that runs on gasoline, or a flex-fuel vehicle that could run on E85 ethanol. The United States DOE’s and EPA’s, made it easy for car buyers to compare choices.

When you drive, there is most likely ethanol in your fuel tank. Ethanol is a fuel from a plant source that is normally mixed with gasoline. The percentage varies widely. All current U.S. vehicles can run on a blend of up to 10% ethanol (E10). GM launched a national campaign, “Live Green Go Yellow.” GM and Ford (F) have sold millions of flex fuel vehicles (FFV) on the road. GM is prepared to make up to half its vehicles ethanol capable by 2012.

Although FFVs are hot sellers in the USA, most have never had a drop of E85 in their tank. They are only fueled with standard gasoline blends. There are over 6 million vehicles on the U.S. streets that could run E85. Most never have.

Most FFVs are fuel guzzlers; fueled with E85, they are corn guzzlers. In 2007 the best rated car running on E85 was the Chevrolet Impala, with a United States EPA mileage rating of 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 on the highway when fueled with E85. For a typical U.S. year of driving, the annual fuel cost would be at $1,657 and 6 tons of CO2 would be emitted by this FFV when running on E85.

By contrast, the EPA rating for a Toyota (TM) Prius running on gasoline was 60 miles per gallon in the city and 51 on the highway. The Prius would have an annual fuel cost of $833 and only emit 3.4 tons of CO2, compared to 6 tons from the most fuel efficient E85 offering.

A big problem is that ethanol cuts miles per gallon by about 27%. The energy content of E85 is 83,000 BTU/gallon, instead of 114,000 BTU/gallon for gasoline. Even by 2030, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that only 1.4% of ethanol use will be E85. The vast majority will be for small percentage blending with gasoline.

The EIA forecasts that ethanol use will grow from 4 billion gallons in 2005 to 14.6 billion gallons in 2030 (about 8 percent of total gasoline consumption vs. today’s 2%). Ethanol use for gasoline blending grows to 14.4 billion gallons and E85 consumption to only 0.2 billion gallons in 2030. In other words, agriculture will be a big winner without any need to spend millions of tax dollars funding E85 stations.

There is a heated debate about whether ethanol helps the environment. In the U.S., the vast majority of ethanol is processed from corn. There is no current environmental benefit if the source-to-wheels use of ethanol includes diesel farm equipment, fertilizer from fossil fuel, coal produced electricity, diesel delivery trucks hauling ethanol over 1,000 miles to refineries, and then fueling a vehicle with poor mileage.

The amount of U.S. corn that became ethanol exceeds 20 percent. The Corn Growers Association says that by 2015 a third of all the corn grown – or 5.5 billion bushels – likely will be for ethanol. Food prices have increased.

World Watch Institute warns “Conventional biofuels will be limited by their land requirements: producing half of U.S. automotive fuel from corn-based ethanol, for example, would require 80 percent of the country’s cropland.” Thus, large-scale reliance on ethanol fuel will require new conversion technologies and feedstock.

A broad coalition is more enthusiastic about cellulosic rather than corn ethanol. Ethanol and other biofuels can be made from a wide range of plant fiber and waste. Currently corn kernels are more easily processed into fuel than cellulosic corn stover, but new enzyme technology can change that. Future stalk for ethanol may include prairie grasses, Miscanthus, Poplar, Willow and algae. Cellulosic sources could produce ten times the yield per acre of corn.

Cellulosic ethanol could account for all 14.6 billion of forecasted consumption, and even more, without needing special E85 pumps. It could all be blended with existing gasoline and fueled into current and future gasoline vehicles. Such blended cellulosic ethanol creates major opportunities for farmers in the United States and the world. It is incremental business, rather than business that competes with existing food business.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has concluded that with “an aggressive plan to develop cellulosic biofuels between now and 2015, America could produce the equivalent of nearly 7.9 billion barrels of oil per day by 2050. That is equal to more than 50 percent of our current total oil use in the transportation sector and more than three times as much as we import from the Persian Gulf alone.”

Increasingly biofuel will not be made from food; rather it will be made from sources such as waste, grasses, fast growth trees, algae, and biotechnology.

Fueling all current high-mileage cars with E10 helps reduce global warming when the ethanol is from cellulosic sources. Putting E85 ethanol in a vehicle with poor mileage does not help. It does not even help the nation with energy independence.

Until flex-fuel vehicles offer the same high mileage as many current cars, do not buy a FFV. The FFV will not help your pocketbook, the nation’s energy security, nor will it help the environment. When you buy your next vehicle, get high miles per gallon.